Two fires in New Jersey state forests consumed more than 1,000 acres within the Pinelands National Reserve this week and their causes remain under investigation, state officials said Tuesday.
One of the fires continued to burn Tuesday afternoon, and officials said hot, dry, breezy conditions increased the overall fire risk in the state.
Greg McLaughlin, chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, said the spring is typically an “intense and busier” fire season.
“But we’ve had a drying pattern,” McLaughlin said, and low humidity, leading to “really dry conditions.” The entire state is listed as being in high fire danger.
The first blaze, which ultimately burned 617 acres, was spotted from a fire tower in Bass River State Forest about 4 p.m. Sunday, not far from Tuckerton just off the coast. Firefighters responded in minutes, but the fire spread through the state forest in Burlington County and into Little Egg Harbor Township in Ocean County.
Fire officials have dubbed it the Ballanger fire, named after Ballanger Creek, a small tributary of the Mullica River where it was first spotted. The fire burned into Monday, until it was fully contained. Officials attributed the spread not only to dry conditions, but also to trees that were defoliated by gypsy moths, which allowed the fire to burn more easily than if the trees were leaf-covered.
The Ballanger fire initially threatened about 100 structures, but firefighters were able to use prescribed burns to control the fire. However, officials expect smoke to be visible for possibly days as the fire smolders. No one was injured in the fire.
The second fire broke out 8:30 p.m. Monday about 25 miles away at Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, deep in the heart of the Pine Barrens. It has been dubbed the Turkey Buzzard fire after a nearby road.
Officials said the fire encompassed about 407 acres and was about 50% contained as of Tuesday morning. It forced the closure of part of the Batona Trail from Magnolia Road to Four Mile Road.
Firefighters were still on the scene Tuesday afternoon; no one has been injured in that fire.
Ray Bukowski, an assistant commissioner at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the fires had limited ecological impact on the fabled Pine Barrens because there was a lot of fuel in the form of downed or dead vegetation that burned. Fire is part of the Pine Barrens ecosystem. Pitch pine, highly flammable, needs fire to release seeds from cones.